When I Used to Be a Sparrow‘s Luke appeared last year, I praised its “interesting and unique” take on indie rock but complained that they pushed the “anthem” button too often. The duo has corrected that oversight on You Are an Empty Artist, creating a more intimate collection of tunes that yet resists navelgazing. These songs weren’t written as stadium crushers, although they might turn out that way if the band’s passion, composition chops and infectious melodies have anything to say about it.
The chiming guitar tone and soaring, U2-esque guitar melodies from Luke are largely retained but modified in a critical way: instead of being thrown way up in the mix, the guitars take an equal seat with the vocals and rhythm section (“Spring Knows Where You Live,” “I’ve Got the Feeling We Are Not in Kansas Anymore”). This creates an egalitarian atmosphere in the arrangements, letting the listener’s ear roam about. By taking the focus off one thing, they put the focus on everything. Songs like “I’ve Got…” live up to that treatment, as the rhythms, melodies, and intricacies are a joy to listen to. But by keeping the pace quick and focusing on singable vocal melodies, the songs don’t ever veer toward guitar noodling.
The insistent pace and excellent chorus of “Cannonball” mark it as a highlight, while “Always the Runner” stands out by slowing the pace down and showing off a different side of the band. But from opener “Laura” to closer “July,” I Used to Be a Sparrow doesn’t disappoint. Their instrumental palette is still largely stable throughout, and I’d love to hear them experiment with some more sounds in future releases. But as it stands, You Are an Empty Artist does a good job of meeting its own ideals and eschewing vapidity in its work. That’s a worthy coda to any review.
Independent Clauses is somewhat of an alternate universe when it comes to music reviewing. I rarely cover the hip bands, often love things no one else does, and generally attempt to be true to what I hear. If there’s a radar to be on or under, we’re hanging out on a different screen altogether. This is more by happenstance than choice: I never set out to be contrarian. And I don’t feel like a curmudgeonly naysayer of popular music, as you’ll see tomorrow. I just have a different lens than many people. Here’s the view from that lens.
16. Elijah Wyman/Jason Rozen’s collective output: Tiny Mtns/The Seer Group/Decent Lovers. What started out as the artsy electro-pop project Tiny Mtns split into a heavily artsy electro project (The Seer Group) and a heavily artsy pop project (Decent Lovers), with the two splitting the tracks between them. Except when both kept a track and reworked it to their likings. Did I mention that this one time, one of these guys gave the other a kidney? Now you see why they get one mention.
I’m showing up late to The Naked and the Famous’ album Passive Me Aggressive You because I agreed with the naysayers who thought “Young Blood” sounded like second-rate Passion Pit. But since I ran across the much more subtle and interesting “Girls Like You” and “Punching In,” I’ve been hooked on the band’s sound. I even like “Young Blood” more, because I know that it’s backed up with nuance, as opposed to cash-in, rip-off glee. Official apology complete.
Bands that can pull off glee and nuance with equal passion are of deep interest to me, which is why TNATF and I Used to Be a Sparrow both have been piquing my interest recently. The duo named I Used to Be a Sparrow hails from Sweden, composed of IC fave Andrea Caccese (Songs for the Sleepwalkers) and Dick Pettersson. Caccese brings thoughtful post-rock/dream-pop influences from his previous work to their debut Luke, while Pettersson contributes an upbeat indie-rock aesthetic reminiscent of Frightened Rabbit. The result is an optimistic, energetic, beautiful album with plenty of room to grow.
The album has a lot of musical touchpoints: the churning post-rock of Sigur Ros has some pull on the sound, while the heavily rhythmic beauty of their lead singer Jonsi’s work figures in (“Lovers on the Moon”). The optimistic mysticism of ’80s U2 (optimysticism?) influences some of the guitar work (“Cambodia,” especially), while the passionate charge of Scott Hutchison’s Frightened Rabbit is unavoidable to mention (“Cambodia,” again). Their more anthemic turns call up Kings of Leon and U2 again.
So is this a derivative mess? No, not at all. The touchstones never devolve into aping another’s sound, because the dream-pop, post-rock and indie-rock ideas are all pulling on each other at the same time. The best example of this is the title track: “Luke” starts off with a wall of squalling guitars and feedback before fading the noise into a dreamy, patterned electronic rhythm and four-part vocal chorus. The background drops out, leaving just the transcendent vocals. It’s an odd tune, but an endearing one, because the vocals are just so good. The song ends, seguing into “Give It Up,” which is an acoustic track of sorts.
The best of the tunes here are idiosyncratic like “Luke.” “Smoke” starts off with a chiming mellophone, introduces some interesting rhythmic patterns, and then augments the construction with a stomping, four-on-the-floor drumbeat. “Lovers on the Moon” builds from an acoustic guitar and distant “ooo” into a unique tune complete with shakers, toms, and screaming guitar. “Give It Up” builds an acoustic track out into a darker mood, again with fitting drumming and evocative guitar.
When I Used to Be a Sparrow pushes the “anthemic” button too often, though, things start to get less easily discernable from each other. “Copenhagen” and “Life is Good” sound a lot like each other; “Hawaii” is not that far off. The songs aren’t bad, but they’re repetitive. (Of the three, “Life is Good” sounds like the original, and the other two the copies.) “Moby Dick,” one of the more memorable vocal melodies on the album, owes a debt to the Passion Pit/The Naked and the Famous school. (Which, I suppose, is a good or bad thing, depending.)
Caccese is starting a habit of doing one-off projects, but I hope this is one that he sticks with. The things that he and Pettersson bring to the table make for a unique blend of nuance, passion and enthusiasm. With some more songwriting under their collective belt, I Used to Be a Sparrow could be something really great. Tunes like “Luke” and “Lovers on the Moon” already prove that their vision is an interesting and unique one. Here’s to hoping they refine and mature it, because I would love to hear more of this.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of instrumental music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.